There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Few periods in American history have spawned as many legends as the 1896-99 Klondike Gold Rush. The rush brought out the best and worst in the men and women who swarmed north in search of wealth. The tales of their adventures, some true and some myths, have filled many books. But few writers captured the spirit of gold rush life like poet Robert W. Service, sometimes called “The Bard of the Yukon.” His writing was so expressive, and so evocative of the time that his readers took him for a hard-bitten old Klondike prospector.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Robert William Service never prospected for gold and did not, in fact, arrive in the Klondike until years after the gold rush played out.
Service was born in 1874 to a Scottish family living in England. Trained to be a bank clerk like his father, he left Glasgow for Canada at the age of 21, hoping to become a cowboy. He drifted around western North America for a time and finally took work with the Canadian Bank of Commerce. After working in a number of branches, he was posted to the branch in Whitehorse in 1904, then later to Dawson City in the Klondike in in 1908. Inspired by the vast beauty of the wilderness, Service began writing poetry about the things he saw. Conversations with local characters who’d lived through the gold rush led him to write about things he heard, embellishing them with his own imagination.
After collecting enough poems for a book, he offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work. The publisher returned the money and offered Service a contract. The book, published as The Spell of the Yukon in America and The Songs of a Sourdough in England, made him world famous and also very wealthy. Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank and travel to Paris and Hollywood. Service remained a British citizen for life. During World War I he served as an ambulance driver. He wrote many poems about the war and about other places he visited – more than 1,000 poems in all, as well as two autobiographical novels.
He married a Parisian woman and lived most of his life in France, where he died in 1958. His wife, thirteen years his junior, died in 1989 at the age of 102.
If you’ve never read Service’s Gold Rush poems you’re in for a treat. I especially love “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” quoted in part at the beginning of this blog, about the prospector who was always cold. It’s too long to include in its entirety, but here’s a link: